The Kootenay Ice are officially on the move to Winnipeg.
Ice governor Greg Fettes, Ice president and general manager Matt Cockell and Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison made the announcement on Tuesday morning at Western Financial Place.
“This is a difficult day for hockey fans in the Kootenay region, but we’re confirming today that the Western Hockey League and the Western Hockey League board of governors has approved the relocation of the Kootenay Ice franchise to Winnipeg,” said Robison.
“This relocation will take effect next season for the start of the 2019/20 season. We want to extend our appreciation to the community of Cranbrook, the East Kootenay region, the entire hockey fan base that’s here in this community for their support over the past 21 seasons.”
The franchise first came to Cranbrook in 1998 in a relocation from Edmonton spearheaded by Ed Chynoweth, and later taken over by his son, Jeff. Over 21 seasons, the team captured three league championships and one Memorial Cup in 2002.
The WHL has been assessing the attendance and financial situation of the Kootenay Ice dating back to 2011, when concerns first piqued after Western Financial Place didn’t sell out during the championship series.
“We stuck with this a long time, and I give the Chynoweth family a lot of credit for what they did,” said Robison. “They were certainly committed to this community for many, many years and that was our intent, was to find local ownership that could sustain this franchise, but in fairness, at the end of the day, Greg and his group, along with Matt Cockell, have demonstrated to us that they’re the type of ownership that was going to do everything they could when they first moved here, but that assessment really extended much earlier than that.”
Fettes, who is a majority owner of the Kootenay Ice, said ownership tried to keep the franchise in Cranbrook.
“We came in eyes wide open. We knew there was going to be some challenges, but we went all in,” said Fettes. “Judge us by our actions when we first got here.”
Fettes talked about investing in the community, referencing Cockell moving his family to Cranbrook, as well as making a $25,000 donation to the Canadian Mental Health Association - Kootenays.
“We really invested ourselves in the community and the be frank the community responded. I don’t think this is was a typical case of where you see a community losing their team because they didn’t step up and support it. I think this community was unbelievable,” said Fettes.
Robison stressed it was not the ownership who made the decision to move.
“This was a Western Hockey League discussion ultimately — not the ownership decision to transfer this franchise. It was a decision made over an eight or nine year period of assessment of this market and the ability of this franchise to be sustainable over a long period of time. These are difficult decisions, especially difficult when you look at the passionate fans in this community and how it supported this franchise,” he said.
While there were rumors and speculation circling for months about the relocation, Fettes said it wasn’t until the summer when the possibility built momentum.
“When we bought this franchise our desire to be part of the WHL went way before Matt and I actually had the opportunity to have a franchise. When we had this opportunity the league made very clear to us that is we were to buy the franchise we had to go 110 per cent to make it work here — and we made that commitment and frankly we were all in, but again judge us by our actions,” he said.
The domain name of Winnipeg Ice was purchased when the new ownership bought the team in 2017, and Fettes denied it had anything to do with plans to move the team, but something he did for his young son.
“If we wanted to buy those and have those where you couldn’t see who the registered owner was it is not very hard to do that. I own hundreds of domains through my other businesses. It certainly did not reflect our intention, that was me and my eight-year-old thinking I’m going to do something interesting for him,” he explained.
Recently, fans have noticed there were multiple acquisitions of players that are from Manitoba.
“I think a lot of the moves were done in the best interest of respecting some players as well as trying to help our organization and I’ll leave it at that,” said Cockell.
Fettes says there are is still things that need to be worked out with the move, including with the City of Cranbrook and the lease they have.
“Our intention is to live up to the promise [and] to be fair as we exit, but those conversations are yet to be had,” he said.
While the announcement was made to media only, fans did show up but were not allowed into the meeting.
“Not happy to see the team leave, I think as a fan, as somebody who works at the games for this team, and for someone who has a general interest in hockey I’m highly disappointed that these owners with such deep pockets would end up pulling the chute on this team this early, and I think that’s the sentiment of a lot of people in the community here,” said John Hudak, who was with the Kootenay Ice Green Bay Committee.
In the coming weeks, Cockell says he wants the fans to continue to support the team because it’s really about the players. He also alluded to a ceremony that is “incredibly special” in the works, that will include an alumnus.
“We want to continue to encourage people to support the players — that’s the message. The players really enjoy the community, they have great ties to the community,” he said.